JAY-Z’s ‘American Gangster’ at 10: How a Movie Inspired Hov’s First Truly Personal Album
"Don't compare me to other rappers. I'm more Frank Lucas than Ludacris."
JAY-Z needed something. He'd just made a major comeback to music following his 2003 "retirement." He'd closed out his 1996-2003 run with the successful Black Album and Fade To Black Tour, but 2006s Kingdom Come was far from the critical home-run fans had expected from rap's former top dog. Sure, Jay could still make hits—but so could LL Cool J. Delivering empty hits didn't mean you were still influencing the culture, so the veteran rapper needed to prove he could still deliver the goods from a creative and musical standpoint—as opposed to merely a commercial one.
In 2007, Ridley Scott's American Gangster was one of the most highly-anticipated films of the year. Starring Denzel Washington as legendary Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas, it followed Lucas' rise from low-rung go-fer to one of America's most notorious heroin traffickers. After watching an advanced screening of the movie in Manhattan, Jay felt a kinship with the portrayal of Lucas; from his drug dealing hustle to his familial woes.
Coming off of the lackluster reception to Kingdom Come, Jay approached the movie's producers about recording the soundtrack for the film. When producer Brian Grazer shared that he didn't think Jay's idea would be musically appropriate given the film's 1970s setting; Jay decided to push forward with a standalone album. It was obvious that creatively, American Gangster always meant something special to the rapper; Jay famously refused to release the individual tracks to iTunes—deeming the album to conceptual to be broken into standalone songs.
Jay was still President of Def Jam in 2007, and his business endeavors were starting to overshadow his rap career. With a mediocre comeback album still lingering in the public consciousness, there was a pervading idea that Jay was now truly more of a "business, man." But he made it clear that his focus from the beginning of this particular project was creativity.
"You've got to allow artists to be artists," Jay told Rolling Stone in 2007. "You've got to build a career. Only people with careers can establish a brand. So the music, absolutely, comes first. You can't make a deal while you're making the album. Make the album, then do other things. Everything gets shut down when you're making the music. On this album, I didn't go to work one day. It was my primary focus. I'm glad it took three weeks. If it took six months, people would be sayin', "You haven't been to work in six months."
Jay recorded the album in a breathless four weeks. Sonically, American Gangster is more of a musical sequel to The Blueprint than any of Jay's actual follow-up installments to the 2001 classic. The soul samples echo the backdrop of that album without re-hashing; and the cohesive feel is a small miracle considering the litany of cooks in this particular kitchen. Jay tapped top shelf producers like Just Blaze, No I.D., Jermaine Dupri, Puffy's Hitmen, The Neptunes and DJ Toomp for tracks, and the vast majority of the album evokes the same 70s spirit of the film that inspired it.
The anthemic "Pray" features soon-to-be-wife Beyoncé—with Jay in pretty standard conflicted-baller mode; name-dropping the Kennedys, the Harlem Renaissance and the Genovese as he reflects on growing up in poverty and family trauma. On "American Dreamin,'" the Hitmen's flip of Marvin Gaye's "Soon I'll Be Loving You Again" is reminiscent of the work Puffy's cadre of talents had done on Mary J. Blige's masterwork My Life back in 1994. More than any release associated with Bad Boy's flashy impresario, that album proved that sampling could be tasteful and soulful when melded with live players, and the Hitmen reach comparable balance here.
Opting for 80s boom-bap instead of 70s soul, the Lil Wayne-assisted "Hello Brooklyn 2.0," is an exceptional repurposing of the Beastie Boys' classic segment from their 12-minute epic "B-Boy Bouillabaisse." With Jay giving the requisite love to his home borough, Weezy is just as affectionate—even as an out-of-towner:
"Where Brooklyn at?/Where Brooklyn at? Have you seen her?/And when she tell you something you better believe her/She told me she like my New Orleans demeanor/And so I said goodbye Katrina, and hello Brooklyn..."
"No Hook" features some of the fiscal and career advising that would earn raves on 4:44 a decade later: "Own boss own yacht, masters, slave/The mentality I carry with me to this very day/Fuck rich—let's get wealthy, who else gon' feed we?"
"Roc Boys (And the Winner Is...)" remains one of Jay's best post-2003 singles, a stellar snippet of The Menahan Street Band's "Make the Road By Walking" carries one of Jay's most toast-worthy anthems. The kind of celebratory hustler's track that few do as well as Jay, it wasn't a major chart hit in 2007, but has endured longer and aged better than many of Jay's big radio smashes of the early 2000s. No song on the album evokes the menacing cool of 1970s New York City better than "Sweet." Flipping "Does Your Mama Know" by Rudy Love & The Love Family, Jay once again turns conflict ("Shall we dance with the devil for a beat/I pray to God I ain't got two left feet") into clarity ("I'm Hyman Roth I made all my partners rich/I can't vouch for you/If you ain't a part of this...") while acknowledging the pain this life causes.
"I Know" features the rapper taking the perspective of the very drug being pushed; rapping as heroin with lines like: "Cold sweats occur when I'm not with her/My presence is a must- must- must-/Bonita Applebum, I gotta put you on/If I didn't when we cutting, the feeling'll be too strong."
Toomp's lush "Say Hello," is the album's most definitive track—there are more famous songs, to be sure, but none captures the spirit of American Gangster like this. "I ain't playin', life's short so I aim/I ain't waiting for life to start portrayin' em/It's twice as hard to get a job as payin' 'em/So I ain't payin' attention to what you're sayin'" The lines sound more mournful than macho, with Jay laying out exactly how much one has to give up to be the man in a game as cold as the one Frank Lucas plays.
Having collaborated with Nas on the Queensbridge rapper's 2006 album Hip-Hop Is Dead, Jay recruited his former rival for "Success" here; a look at the calculating that comes with climbing the ladder. The Neptunes-produced "Blue Magic" was the album's first single, and features Jay's boasting ("And I'm gettin' it, I'm gettin' it/I ain't talkin' about it, I'm livin' it") and Pharrell's interpolation of En Vogue's 1990 hit "Hold On" as the hook.
Jermaine Dupri and No I.D. co-produce the dramatic "Fallin'" which also features a hook from soul singer Bilal. With cascading harmonies sampled from "Fell For You" by the Dramatics, it's the most 90s-evoking track on the album—even with a hook that seemed beamed in from a different song. That's not to say it doesn't work, quite the opposite: the shifts in tone amplify Jay's musings about the troubling nature of building dreams that corrupt your soul and those you love: "You seen what that last run did to De Niro/And he can't beat the odds/Can't cheat the gods/Can't blow too hard, life's a deck of cards."
The title track is, unusually, a bonus—with an excellent sample of Curtis Mayfield's "Short Eyes." Jay takes the listener right back to the Brooklyn corners of his youth on the Just Blaze-produced banger. "Forty below Timbs on, getting my M's on/My best friends gone, I seen bad days/Still find songs that I hear him on/Getting my Mary J. Blige 'Reminisce' on/I hear his voice in my mind like, nigga live on..."
For Jay's most widely-acclaimed albums, there's an element of historical significance--even if its only in hindsight. Reasonable Doubt announces him as an artist and serves as a quasi-manifesto for his career; The Blueprint perched him atop 2000s hip-hop and served as a coronation for superproducers Kanye West and Just Blaze, The Black Album was Jay's victory lap after having done virtually everything a rapper could've wanted to do circa 2003. Even this summer's 4:44 feels like the rebranding of Jay as a socially-aware iconoclast—who also happens to be worth nearly a billion dollars.
With American Gangster, there is no weighty cultural importance that can be assigned—it is now what it was 10 years ago: an inspired record that served to remind everyone that Jay-Z can make inspired records. At the time, he was coming off of the disappointing Kingdom Come, and with the rise of newer superstars like 50 Cent, Kanye West and Lil Wayne, he had to show that he was still among rap's elite and not the elder statesman whose greatness was mostly in the rearview. This album made it clear that JAY-Z was as vital as he'd been a decade earlier. And as Jay made clear in 2007, he was happier than he'd ever been.
"Oh, I'm in a great, great place in my life," he told The Guardian at the time. "I've gone past everything I could have ever imagined that I would achieve as a recording artist and I'm continuing to do it. And I'm surrounded by great people. Very few people have both of those things. I really understand that I'm a blessed guy."
The darkness of Ridley Scott's film informs the album's core. Every song feels like a snippet born of the movie American Gangster without ever sounding overly tied to the plot or characters; this is truly music inspired by the film, and Jay found his creative muse in the story. But the greatness of American Gangster isn't in what inspired the album's conception; it's what was wrought from that inspiration. What the album lacks in historical import; it more than makes up for in personal expression. Shawn Carter had always been more introspective and pensive than his critics acknowledged; but all of his biggest albums felt preoccupied with appealing to as many listeners as possible. Jay's commercial ambitions were always there—even on his most accomplished releases.
But American Gangster isn't an album that needed a "Big Pimpin'" or "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" to dominate the airwaves. This is an album Jay made to exorcise the demons of his early years. It was as if he had to expunge the ghosts of his crack hustler days to fully realize who JAY-Z 2.0 was going to be as an artist. In the story of Frank Lucas, he found a way to express his regret, his hubris, his perseverance and his conflict. It was the most Jay had ever let the world in for an entire album; that he did it under the guise of celebrating a Ridley Scott movie may have been why much of the world didn't realize it at the time.
Watch JAY-Z's Video for "I Know":
Watch JAY-Z's Video for "Blue Flame":
Watch JAY-Z's Video for "Roc Boys (And the Winner Is...)":